A Castle in the Sky

In March 2013, after years of talking about it we eventually sell up and move out of the city with our 2 year old, Gracie. We both grew up in the countryside and this is what we want for our daughter. So we swap a 2 bed flat in London for a small country pile on the west coast of Scotland that needs a lot of work. I've done a bit of interior design and my partner, Ed has a good knowledge of the outdoors – but we're on a tight budget and we've both got a lot to learn. It's a life time's project and this is a record of our adventure…


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Harvesting honey (Aug 18)

The end of the summer means the end of the honey flow.   So last week we took the first honeycomb from the hives.   When I say ‘we’ I do mean we, as this time I borrowed Ed’s spare bee-suit jacket and hat.  Intrigue took over.   I was charged with stacking the frames which meant I could keep some distance but in the event I felt quite protected.   I did suffer a psychosomatic attack of itchiness though – just enough to keep me on red alert…

We removed all the honeycomb from the stacks at the top – 10 frames in all – and reduced down the size of each hive. Only a third of the cells on our frames are ‘capped’ or sealed over with bees wax.  Each capped cell it’s own miniature, hexagonal pot of perfect honey with it’s own lid.   Ed’s a bit disappointed about the capped to non-capped ratio – and as our  ‘bee-catcher’ sadly didn’t attract another swarm (see our First Hive – May 11) this is all our honey for this year.

To get the honey out the caps are sliced off and the comb goes into a spinning machine.  At this time of year Neil the bee-man has a honey extractor in his (apparently very sticky) kitchen.   Today is extraction day – and Ed’s returned with a bucketful of honey that we’ve just transferred into small jars…

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There are 33 jars in all which is much more than we expected so we’re delighted.  It has a very delicate, floral flavour which could be partly lime flowers, as the huge lime trees on our drive were buzzing this summer…

The bees will now hunker down for the winter and the colony will become much smaller.  They stop doing all the normal bee-type things so they live longer and the queen stops laying eggs. We’ve left enough honey inside the hive to feed them through till spring.

Ed thinks that we should be able to produce around three times as much honey next year, as the bees have now made all the honeycomb.  God knows what we’ll do with it all?   He’s already talking about farmer’s markets but I think we’ve got quite enough on our hands for now…

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Our first hive (May 11)

The weather is good and the bees are busy – so Neil ‘The Bee Man’ is here to split one of his hives and get us started on one of our own.    Catching a swarm is one way to start a new colony (see Busy Bees – Mar 1) and ‘splitting a hive’ is apparently another.

So Ed and Neil transplant the queen with a load of her followers into our new hive…while I keep my distance.   The rest of the bees are left behind.  These will now create a new queen by fattening up a female larva with loads of royal jelly.   I’m learning the ABC of bee-keeping through Ed – it’s totally captivating and slowly drawing me in.  Although my bee-suit’s still on order…

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Up in the walled garden we also have a swarm-catching plan.   It’s less whimsical than a scented ‘bee-catcher’ in the yew tree, as described by Mr C – apparently the yew tree is too close to the house.   Instead it’s a box with some old honeycomb inside perched on top of the wall – but the fact that ‘scout’ bees might locate it and then guide a swarm there to start a new colony is still a pretty enchanting idea.

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So we have our first hive in the paddock and a hive-in-waiting in the walled garden.  If all goes to plan we should have our first honey by the end of the summer.


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Busy bees (Mar 1)

We have bees.  Well almost – they’re not quite ours yet.   They belong to the local beekeeper Neil, who came to help with the bees in the walls of the house last summer (see The Bee Man – Jun 16).  He’s put two of his hives in the paddock and when one of these is about to swarm it will provide a new colony for one of our own.

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Ed and Mr C got to know Neil through the local monthly Bee Association meetings which they’ve both been diligently attending since the autumn last year.  After reading several books and asking lots of questions they are now raring to go.    I’m a bit apprehensive about the whole bee thing so I’m putting off getting involved until Ed’s become an expert.

Neil put some foliage in front of each hive (you can’t quite see in the pic) to alert the bees to being in a new place as soon as they fly out.   This means they’ll then create a new map of this area instead of relying on all their knowledge about their old location.    Bees are of course super-sophisticated and all my primary school education keeps flooding back – like the “dances” they perform to tell each other where the pollen is.   Ed says a key “dance” is like a figure of 8 – I’m trying to get him to demonstrate but he isn’t willing….

Currently the bees are pretty sleepy as we’re just coming to the end of winter – but towards the end of the spring they’ll be much more active.   So when Ed gets back from his trip it will be swarm-catching time.    Apparently there’s a plan to catch another swarm from the bees that live in the walls of the house.  This is a more complicated arrangement and involves hanging some kind of scented ‘bee-catcher’ in the yew tree close by but I’m not totally clear on how that plan works!

We have 2 new hives on standby…


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The bee man (Jun 16)

The bee man’s been (See Can Anyone Hear a Buzzing? May 30).  He soon established that it’s definitely honey bees we’ve got here.   He had a good look in the attic but there was no hive in there – and he thinks there are probably 2; one on each side of the house, high up between the rafters and the outside walls so we can’t get any access to them.

He brought a spare bee suit for Ed (who’s been expressing a lot of interest in said bees) but given no hives were to be found, he sadly never got the chance to put it on.

The bee man explained that the swarm we saw was a good sign as bees swarm when they’re moving on with a new queen bee, so the majority of them are now gone (in that hive anyway), leaving an aged queen behind and some loyal hangers on. The only other issue we might encounter is honey dripping through the ceilings – but apparently this is quite rare!

So we have bees in the walls of the house and this is where they’ll stay.

Mr C tells us that years ago someone used to keep hives up behind the walled garden (which likely explains where the ones in our walls originate from).  As Mr C also has a twinkle in his eye at the mention of bees, I’m guessing he and Ed are now hatching a plan….


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Can anyone hear a buzzing? (May 25)

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Last Sunday evening Ed noticed a wasp or two outside and heard a significant buzzing above. Then way up around the main roof gutter at the back of the house he spotted a small swarm. The gutter is 3 floors high so we can’t get up for a closer inspection (not that we’d want to) and if there’s a nest up there it’s likely to be in the attic space anyway….

The thing about the attic though is the size of the hatch… It’s a very tight squeeze and certainly not the size of hatch you want to be squeezing yourself out of with a swarm of angry wasps in hot pursuit. Hmmmm…

Then a few days ago I also noticed a buzzing. This time outside the front door – and when I put Gracie down for her nap a good number of what looked like honey bees were bobbing around outside her bedroom window and one or two had made their way inside. I have to confess I wasn’t totally sure how to tell the difference between wasps and bees but having looked on the internet I’m pretty convinced these are bees. Now I’m wondering whether it’s bees at the back of the house too. Either way it’s certainly been a problem before; after a bit of investigation I discovered several bits of old loo paper shoved between the sashes of Gracie’s window and dozens of dead bees caught up inside…

Guests are now here to stay and yesterday when I was putting Gracie down again my friend Louise came running up the stairs; ‘I think you better come and look at this!…’ Outside the kitchen window the mini-swarm on the roof had turned into a massive swarm about 30 feet high and 10 feet across. It quickly reduced in size but the thought of thousands of wasps suddenly appearing out there is not very nice to say the least.

I’ve since been spending quite a bit of time on the phone…

The man from the council can help us with wasps but he can’t help us with bees and at the moment he can’t help us with anything because he’s off on holiday for a week. The man from Rentokil can deal with wasps AND bees – but there are 2 kinds of bees (don’t ask) and if these are honey bees we have to get a bee-keeper to come and try and save the nests first. I’m loving that – so I found the local bee-keepers association and as luck would have it there’s a bee-keeper who lives in our village – I’ve left him a message. The carpenter’s coming on Monday to widen the hatch…

I’m not sure how this is all going to end but Ed’s now home for the weekend and a quick look through the binoculars has at least established that it’s bees at the back of the house and not wasps after all – which at least feels more comfortable.

It would be lovely to think the nests could be retrieved and that our kindly local bee-keeper might adopt them or perhaps deposit them in a local wood – but this whole bee thing has given Ed a twinkle in his eye and I think he may have other ideas…